The National Trust’s 125th anniversary

Sun rise behind the wind pump at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire Credit: National Trust images/Rob Coleman

As the National Trust, chief custodian of the nation’s heritage, celebrates its 125th anniversary, we visit three properties that reveal the remarkable breadth of its scope.

Of the sumptuous historic properties that grace the pages of this magazine, how many would still exist were it not for the National Trust? Without the vision and ambition of this much-loved organization, countless national treasures – now preserved, in the Trust’s words, “forever, for everyone” – would long ago have been scooped up by avaricious developers.

It was with a typically Victorian mix of high idealism and unassailable brio that the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty was founded by a trio of nature-loving philanthropists in 1895. Chief among them was the indomitable Octavia Hill, a pioneer of affordable housing whose experiences of the cramped conditions of her urban tenants encouraged her to seek protection for London’s remaining green spaces. Dismayed by the relentless onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, Hill and two likeminded allies – Hardwicke Rawnsley, a charismatic Lakeland clergyman, and savvy lawyer Sir Robert Hunter – realized that the only way to preserve the places that mattered was to establish an independent charity with the financial muscle, backed by legal powers, to acquire property as it became available.

In its early years, the Trust focused on saving open spaces and rescuing historic properties from demolition, and it was not until the middle of the last century that it began the work for which it’s perhaps best loved today: conserving and restoring Britain’s great country houses and gardens. 

As society went through profound changes after the Great Depression and the Second World War, aristocratic families increasingly found the costly upkeep of their crumbling stately homes untenable. The Trust’s Country Houses Scheme enabled landowners to escape crippling death duties by donating their country piles to the nation, with the owners – now tenants – allowed to retain residency rent-free in return for the minor indignity of welcoming the paying public.

And so it was that Petworth House, along with 700 acres of magnificent Capability Brown-designed parkland in the South Downs, was gifted to the nation by Edward Wyndham, 3rd Lord Leconfield, in 1947.

For lovers of art, there are few greater spine-tingling pleasures than strolling through Petworth’s opulent State Rooms. Immortalized in a series of atmospheric
views by JMW Turner, this fine Baroque mansion is an extraordinary testament to
the art-collecting prowess of the influential and colourful Percy family, who over many centuries of patronage amassed perhaps the finest array of art and sculpture in any country house in Britain.

Wandering the rooms, stunningly restored to the style of the house’s 19th-century Golden Age, you’ll find walls crammed with major works by van Dyck, Titian and Gainsborough – among many others – alongside Louis XIV furniture, classical statuary and Sèvres porcelain. Above the Grand Staircase, a dazzling ceiling mural by Louis Laguerre retells the story of Prometheus and Pandora; delicate limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons, awash with intricate detail, leap from the walls of Carved Room. 

Above all it is Turner with whom Petworth will forever be associated. A lifelong friend of the philanthropic and unconventional 3rd Earl Egremont (who, it is rumoured, fathered 43 illegitimate children), Britain’s foremost landscape painter came here year after year, inspired by the creative atmosphere the Earl encouraged to produce some of his greatest works. No fewer than 20 Turner masterpieces hang across the house. You can feel his presence in every room.

Two hundred years on, Petworth is once again being transformed into a living house of art, as for 2020 the National Trust installs a resident artist’s studio and Skyscape, an exhibition from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum inspired by Turner’s expressive skies. It promises to be a fitting celebration for this artistic jewel in the Trust’s crown.

Petworth is today one of over 300 heritage buildings in the Trust’s portfolio, which these days increasingly encompasses properties – such as a courtyard of humble Victorian back-to-back houses in Birmingham – that reflect the lives of ordinary working people, as well as the rarefield world of the vanishing aristocracy. Add to this its fabulous collection of over 200 gardens, ranging from grand formal creations to botanical treasure-troves zinging with vibrant colour, and you have the largest array of historic wonders under single ownership in Europe.

The Pompeian Garden at Dyffryn House and Gardens in Wales Credit: © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Nestling in the Vale of Glamorgan, Dyffryn Gardens is one of the Trust’s most exciting acquisitions of recent years. A century ago, Reginald Cory, heir of a coal-mining empire, transformed his father’s estate into the most extravagant Edwardian garden in Wales. A passionate horticulturalist, Cory financed plant-hunting expeditions across the globe, tracking down exotic species to fill the gardens. He amassed the largest collection
of bonsai in the world, and the dahlia garden alone spanned over 600 varieties.

For more on the National Trust, read the full article in BRITAIN Volume 88 Issue 1, on sale here.